It’s a new age with the significant progress made in HIV treatment and support that helps people live much longer lives. But locally, nationally and globally, many people continue to become infected and need care, including a recent spike with youth.
HIV and other sexually transmitted infections are soaring among the young – “Youth aged 13 to 24 accounted for more than 1 in 5 new HIV diagnoses in 2014. Young gay and bisexual males accounted for 8 in 10 HIV diagnoses among youth in 2014,” reported Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additionally, they found, “Youth with HIV are the least likely out of any age group to be linked to care.”
EPIC HIV Support for High-Risk Populations
Jericka Knox is committed to HIV/AIDS prevention and support services for the many people who are infected in our Tampa Bay community. Knox works as a comprehensive risk counselor with our new EPIC (Empath Partners in Care) HIV services organization, a merger of two longtime providers ASAP (AIDS Service Association of Pinellas) and Francis House.
In this Q&A, learn how Knox and her team provide testing, education and medical case management to help youth and other high-risk clients facing many challenges in their lives with HIV.
Q&A with EPIC’s Jericka Knox:
What’s your background?
I have bachelor’s degrees in biology and in family, youth and community sciences. I’m currently a master’s in public health candidate with a concentration in global communicable diseases and epidemiology. I’ve worked at our EPIC ASAP campus for almost two years.
How do you feel about EPIC?
I’m really excited about our new merger with Francis House, such a core organization. I think this will open up new opportunities for our clients and for us to engage with the community in general. Everybody goes above and beyond here.
Why did you go into HIV work?
I’m very interested in HIV and health. There’s a health disparity with black men and women. My eye-opening moment was when I was in undergrad helping someone doing work with minorities and HIV/AIDS. She took me and other students to an Orlando conference and there was a girl there talking about her experience contracting HIV, having to tell her partner and being pregnant. That really opened my eyes and made me think, ‘O.k., this could be me.’ Usually you see a lot of advertising and messaging geared toward males and to see this young black woman resonated with me. After that I started looking at a career in HIV.
What perceptions, risks factors and challenges do you see with young people and how does EPIC help?
Many young adults have the perception that someone with HIV looks extremely sick and frail. That’s not the case. And most can’t fathom their friends or the people they sleep with having HIV because they seem “clean”. It can happen to anyone. It’s not just people sleeping with multiple people.
Some of the risk factors with youth are stigma of HIV; little to no education about HIV; accessibility and availability of condoms; and substance abuse. With the younger population, it’s about having access to care and services and bringing down the barrier of stigma. If we’re not teaching them they’re going to find the information somewhere else. It’s necessary for us to provide and direct them to accurate information and resources and that they have someone they can talk to.
What trends do you see with the populations you serve?
It depends on where I am. I do see that we’re getting a lot of mainly young males of color coming in and getting tested. It’s a good thing. It shows that they’re very concerned with their status. I’ve tested many young adults.
We’ve also seen an influx with people with Hepatitis-C, which can put you at higher risk of contracting HIV. It’s related to drug use. Oftentimes, people are nervous about getting tested, especially if they have Hepatitis-C, because they’re not sure of what will happen. A lot of times the barrier or fear is that they don’t have insurance and don’t know if they’ll be able to get services if they’re diagnosed with HIV. And the answer is yes, there’s a network of services and people to help them get medications, even if they don’t have insurance.
How do you help your clients with medical case management?
Our case load is smaller because the intensity of our work is very high. We meet with our clients a lot over a week in the beginning and focus on getting them into care. Outside of general health there are lot of other factors that need to be taken care of, such as assistance with housing, food or abusive situations. Housing is a big factor with getting into or staying in care. If you don’t have housing you don’t have electricity and many HIV medications need to be refrigerated.
Most young adults, ages of 13 to 24, are referred to a program that is housed at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. For the adults that feel comfortable staying in our services, we can provide many other options for care and support varying at our five locations in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Our services may include HIV education, pharmacy services, medical care, counseling, housing assistance, food pantries and more.
What kind of education do you provide in the community?
There are four of us who make up the outreach and education team. We do a lot of classes based on a program that teaches about condom negotiation skills. Some groups we teach are faith-based and other organizations ask us to come to them or we seek them out.
We do alternative programs with kids because the Florida school system isn’t as comprehensive with this type of education. In Florida, sexual health is discussed in the context of abstinence only. Many young adults are faced with not having the proper knowledge or skills to have a healthy sexual life. They’re not aware of where they can get condoms and testing. The Yes program works with youth, ages 13 to 24, and we tend to refer to them. We see the numbers rising. They need to be educated.
Where do you provide testing and what’s the process like?
We do free testing at four of our locations, other sites in the community and in our mobile unit. We go to locations that we feel we’ll find at-risk individuals and pass out condoms and provide testing and some medical case management. Some common sites have included Pinellas Safe Harbor homeless shelter in Clearwater and a McDonald’s restaurant and St. Vincent de Paul center in St. Petersburg.
Our test only takes about 15 minutes. The good thing about coming in to get tested with us is that we’re knowledgeable about next steps. For those who test reactive, we do a confirmatory test for the health department, set up appointments for treatment and services, as well as help teach about how to reduce their risks of transmission or re-infection. For those who test non-reactive we teach about how to reduce risks and prevent contraction.
Get Tested and Support
We’re here for you if you’d like to be tested or enroll in services. To learn more, visit MyEPIC.org or call us at (727) 328-3260 in Pinellas County or (813) 237-3066 in Hillsborough County.